Income shifting commonly begins when companies like Google sell or license the foreign rights to intellectual property developed in the U.S. to a subsidiary in a low-tax country. That means foreign profits based on the technology get attributed to the offshore unit, not the parent. Under U.S. tax rules, subsidiaries must pay “arm’s length” prices for the rights — or the amount an unrelated company would.
Because the payments contribute to taxable income, the parent company has an incentive to set them as low as possible. Cutting the foreign subsidiary’s expenses effectively shifts profits overseas.
After three years of negotiations, Google received approval from the IRS in 2006 for its transfer pricing arrangement, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The IRS gave its consent in a secret pact known as an advanced pricing agreement. Google wouldn’t discuss the price set under the arrangement, which licensed the rights to its search and advertising technology and other intangible property for Europe, the Middle East and Africa to a unit called Google Ireland Holdings, according to a person familiar with the matter.
That licensee in turn owns Google Ireland Limited, which employs almost 2,000 people in a silvery glass office building in central Dublin, a block from the city’s Grand Canal. The Dublin subsidiary sells advertising globally and was credited by Google with 88 percent of its $12.5 billion in non-U.S. sales in 2009.
Allocating the revenue to Ireland helps Google avoid income taxes in the U.S., where most of its technology was developed. The arrangement also reduces the company’s liabilities in relatively high-tax European countries where many of its customers are located.
The profits don’t stay with the Dublin subsidiary, which reported pretax income of less than 1 percent of sales in 2008, according to Irish records. That’s largely because it paid $5.4 billion in royalties to Google Ireland Holdings, which has its “effective centre of management” in Bermuda, according to company filings.
Law Firm Directors
This Bermuda-managed entity is owned by a pair of Google subsidiaries that list as their directors two attorneys and a manager at Conyers Dill & Pearman, a Hamilton, Bermuda law firm.
Tax planners call such an arrangement a Double Irish because it relies on two Irish companies. One pays royalties to use intellectual property, generating expenses that reduce Irish taxable income. The second collects the royalties in a tax haven like Bermuda, avoiding Irish taxes.
To steer clear of an Irish withholding tax, payments from Google’s Dublin unit don’t go directly to Bermuda. A brief detour to the Netherlands avoids that liability, because Irish tax law exempts certain royalties to companies in other EU- member nations. The fees first go to a Dutch unit, Google Netherlands Holdings B.V., which pays out about 99.8 percent of what it collects to the Bermuda entity, company filings show. The Amsterdam-based subsidiary lists no employees.
The Dutch Sandwich
Inserting the Netherlands stopover between two other units gives rise to the “Dutch Sandwich” nickname.
“The sandwich leaves no tax behind to taste,” said Murphy of Tax Research LLP.
Microsoft, based in Redmond, Washington, has also used a Double Irish structure, according to company filings overseas. Forest Laboratories Inc., maker of the antidepressant Lexapro, does as well, Bloomberg News reported in May. The New York-based drug manufacturer claims that most of its profits are earned overseas even though its sales are almost entirely in the U.S. Forest later disclosed that its transfer pricing was being audited by the IRS.
Since the 1960s, Ireland has pursued a strategy of offering tax incentives to attract multinationals. A lesser-appreciated aspect of Ireland’s appeal is that it allows companies to shift income out of the country with minimal tax consequences, said Jim Stewart, a senior lecturer in finance at Trinity College’s school of business in Dublin.
Getting Profits Out
“You accumulate profits within Ireland, but then you get them out of the country relatively easily,” Stewart said. “And you do it by using Bermuda.”